I know that “Wide Awake in Dreamland” is the best of the albums from the third part of Pat Benatar’s career, but if I cannot make an argument for it being her best album ever I can still say that it is my favorite. Or, to be more specific, that what would have been the “A” side if this was a record is my favorite, because once I play the first five tracks I am just as likely to go back to the beginning or play the fifth track again than to proceed to the final five tracks. But then the fifth track on this album is one of her very best songs.
This 1988 album fulfills the first requirement for a great Pat Benatar album by having a hard rocker for the opening track. On previous albums that has meant songs like “Heartbreaker,” “Promises in the Dark,” and “Shadows of the Night.” On this one it means “All Fired Up,” another song designed to open up a Pat Benatar concert. The only notable difference from the others is that the song has some stripped down sections that emphasize Benatar’s vocals before she once again gets an opportunity to show that her voice is going to power through the music, no matter how high you crank up the volume. This reflects the fact that “Wide Awake in Dreamland” is not really a hard rock album. “One Love (Song of the Lion)” keeps the instrumentation down, plays up the rhythm, and gives Benatar an opportunity to do some nice harmonies with the double-tracked vocals. Throughout the album playing up the rhythms in different ways (e.g., “Let’s Stay Together,” “Don’t Walk Away”) is a consistent choice by producer, lead guitarist and husband Neil Geraldo, who absolutely knows how to showcase his wife’s voice, even if he is not one of the writers or the songs (Geraldo has a hand in writing eight of the ten tracks).
The standout track is the haunting “Too Long a Soldier,” which again takes the minimalist approach with the instrumentation. Granted, this is an anti-war song, but it is one that indicts war in general (“I’ve see n so much worth dying for, So little worth killing over”) that the song cannot be qualified as a song against a specific war, which is where such songs usually become more potent and more controversial. Besides, it is an anti-war song that clearly honors the soldiers who have to fight. What stands out is the sublime ending where Benatar works in bits of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Star Spangled Banner” into the final chorus and the long musical fade out. This was never a hit single, but it is far and away one of Benatar’s very best songs.
The rest of the album suffers somewhat in comparison and I think “Too Long a Soldier” should have been the album’s final track. One of the reasons I often stop listening to the album at this point is that when “Cool Zero” starts up, the hard driving rock is too jarring a transition for me. But “Cerebral Man” and ” “Lift Em on Up” again play up the rhythm section for Benatar to sing against. You really will notice the rhythm sections on most of these songs. “Suffer the Little Children” returns Benatar to familiar group and if you have heard her “Best Shots” album you will remember how she does a bit of the song acoustically before launching into “Hell is For Children” in a memorable live track. The title track ends the album on more of rock note, which just underscores how the best songs here reflect more pop sensibilities than anything else once you get past the opening song.
“All Fired Up” (#19) was the only single released from the album. “Wide Awake in Dreamland” only made it to #28 on the Billboard chart, which made it Benatar’s least successful album up to that point in her career. “Precious Time” had made it all the way to the top of the charts. But by the late 1980s Benatar has fallen out of favor with the mainstream rock audience. No wonder it would be three years before she put out another album, “True Love,” which was a radical departure involving the lady singing the blues and early R&B. So this album clearly marks the end of one period in Benatar’s career.